Why do we set rigid boundaries on what colour kids should wear, what toys they should play with, and what their interests should be?
Raising a child is difficult, we know. As parents, our job is to guide our children so that they can become happy, healthy adults. From preschool all the way into university, children are encouraged to conform to social expectations. Some of these expectations are helpful (Don’t pick your nose!), but some are not. I’m talking about gender roles for children in Hong Kong.
Why gender roles for children are problematic
Pink is for girls and blue is for boys
When I used to teach, several of my students complained about parents who didn’t pay attention to their interests. It wasn’t because these kids were into any outrageous, it was simply because their interests didn’t fit the stereotypes for their gender. Girls were only bought Barbie dolls and kitchen sets and dresses all in pink. Boys who liked to draw and show their artistic side were given superhero action figures to play with. What are we trying to teach children here?
Whether it’s from their parents, or their teachers, or from television and social media, many young boys are already taught to be macho (they’re like five years old!) while young girls are taught to be passive. Why does a female child need to learn to be ladylike while a boy is encouraged to get dirty and play in the mud?
Even in a city like Hong Kong, which likes to think of itself as forward-thinking, going to the toy store can be an alarming experience. The clear segregation of toys for boys and toys for girls is baffling! You can’t find a single car, robot, or aeroplane in the girl’s section, whereas you can’t find anything in any hue of pink in the boy’s section. Okay, keep your colours for marketing sake but how about pink robots for a change? Or blue Easy-Bake ovens?
How gender roles for children do more harm than good
Growing up, boys can feel more reluctant to pursue arts and girls can feel more reluctant to take part in sports or pursue science. We do have gender-breaking female comedians and female athletes in Hong Kong, but their road to success has been harder than their male peers. Perhaps things would’ve been different if they were told as children that they could pursue what interests them, regardless of their gender?
How we can improve going forward
No, you do not need to burst a blue balloon for a baby boy and a pink balloon for a baby girl at gender reveal parties, burst whatever friggin’ colour you want to! You also don’t have to be a parent to educate other parents and young children. When you’re talking to a girl, don’t comment on her appearance and ask if she likes princesses. And for a boy, don’t assume that he’s obsessed with sports and superheroes. Not that there’s anything wrong with either. But it’s better to ask an open-ended question that invites them to share what they are excited about without the pressure of meeting assumed expectations.
Talk to kids when you see one (not a random kid, obvs, but one that you know!) and let them know that, no matter whether they are a boy or a girl, they are free to follow their dreams. When I was a teacher, I’d tell young boys it’s completely harmless to use a pink pencil (though they tried arguing otherwise)! Plus, it feels so good to shape little earthlings, they are our future after all!
Let children play with whatever toys that they like and let’s not even get started on the notion “boys will be boys”, it’s not relevant anymore, people!